Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and the Ideological History of American Liberalism
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and the Ideological History of American Liberalism

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and the Ideological History of American Liberalism

by Stephen P. Depoe


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ISBN-13: 9780817358877
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 11/30/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

Stephen P. Depoe is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Cincinnati.

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Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and the Ideological History of American Liberalism

By Stephen P. Depoe

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1994 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5887-7


Origins of Schlesinger's Frame of Acceptance

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., developed his political perspective in response to tensions and challenges that faced him and other liberals who came of age in America during the 1930s and 1940s. In his early years as an academic historian and political activist, Schlesinger would begin to develop and express his views on human nature, history, and ideology. Those views would find their most complete expression in a concept originated by Schlesinger's father, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., entitled "the tides of national politics."

This chapter explores the emergence of the tides of national politics as the younger Schlesinger's frame of acceptance. According to Burke, human beings cope with the uncertainties of existence by symbolically defining "the problem of evil" in the world through a frame of acceptance. "In the face of anguish, injustice, disease, and death one adopts policies. One constructs his notion of the universe or history, and shapes attitudes in keeping." A critical understanding of Schlesinger's developing frame of acceptance must begin with an examination of antecedent conditions, of the political influences, problems, and dilemmas that Schlesinger experienced in the early stages of his career.

Scholar and Political Activist

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1917. He spent his formative years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., was a member of the history faculty at Harvard University. Influenced by progressive historians such as Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles Beard, Schlesinger, Sr., taught courses and conducted research in intellectual and social history. In raising his son, Arthur, Sr., encouraged "Junior" to "hold the mirror up to everything, past and present, and to declare his judgment of what he saw."

The product of this upbringing by the Schlesinger family was a bright, precocious young man "virtually bred" on "liberal history and politics" who accomplished his education and early scholarship "on an accelerated time scale." Arthur, Jr., graduated from Exeter prep school at the age of fifteen, completed his undergraduate degree at Harvard before he was twenty-one, and became a three-year Harvard Fellow in 1940 because of "promise of notable contribution to knowledge and thought."

During these early years of academic apprenticeship, young Arthur completed a book-length study of Jacksonian religious reformer Orestes Brownson and a monograph, "The Problem of Richard Hildreth." The son appeared destined at an early age to follow in his father's footsteps as scholar and pedagogue in American history.

But Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was never content to remain in an intellectual's ivory tower. His father was a quiet political activist, more in keeping with his profession of academic historian. As he explained in 1968, Arthur, Jr., felt "invariably less detached and judicious than my father, more eager for commitment and combat." He wished to participate in transforming his ideas into concrete political actions.

So, for example, after returning from an eleven-month world trip in 1939, young Arthur "became an enthusiastic member and publicist for the preparedness organization, American Defense, Harvard Group" and "wrote articles for the Boston Globe opposing the student peace movement, urging conscription, [and] favoring American intervention following the fall of France." After failing to qualify for combat status, Arthur served his country during the war in the Office of War Information in London, Paris, and Germany. Reflecting on his experiences in 1949, Schlesinger claimed to have "gained more insight into history from being in the war and working for the government than I did from my academic training." In a stark rebuke of professional historiography, Schlesinger asserted: "The trouble is that American historians spend too much time writing about events which the whole nature of their lives prevents them from understanding. Their life is defined by universities, libraries, and seminars."

Schlesinger returned to America to complete The Age of Jackson (1945), a work that earned him a Pulitzer Prize and an appointment to the Harvard history department at the age of twenty-eight. Yet from the beginning of his academic career, the young historian longed to "smell the dust and sweat of battle," and to bring the perspective of historical understanding actively to bear on issues of the day. He would feel the tension between intellectual detachment and political commitment throughout his career.

Postwar Liberalism in Crisis

In the years before World War II, most liberals in America subscribed to the progressive political tradition and philosophy embodied in the goals and policies of the New Deal and personified by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To the progressive liberal, humankind had an essentially good nature. Human errors could be corrected and behavior improved through education and rational inquiry. History was therefore a comic journey through seasons of reform, revolution, and retrenchment toward a progressively better human society. The possibilities for public action to reform democratic institutions in America were bounded only by the ever-expanding limits of human ingenuity and reasoned democratic action at the grass roots level.

These were sentiments found in the politics of Bryan and Wilson, the philosophy of Emerson and Dewey, and the historiography of Turner, Beard, and Becker. In The American as Reformer, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., argued that progressive themes had uniquely dominated the American political tradition: "From the beginning, American democracy has been a method of evolution, a developing conception of human worth springing from Christianity and the doctrine of the rights of man. ... Our national life has been healthy and virile because of the opportunity to criticize, protest and espouse unpopular causes. The reformer has always had his day in court, and if his case was good enough, he has won the verdict." Writing in the New Republic in 1931, Benjamin Ginzburg characterized the progressive mind-set as "messianism, a religion which stakes everything on the hope of the future and which is compelled continually to read its hope into the future in order to support its faith in present action."

The progressive faith in human nature and hopes for improving human society were confronted with the contradictory, harsh realities of deprivation, fascism, and totalitarianism culminating in the destruction of World War II. The horrors of Hitler and Stalin exposed the dark, brutal side of humankind, revealed history as tending not toward a better society but toward collective terror and violence, and confirmed the power of persuasion not for public interests but for the benefit of demagogues. Progressive idealism seemed to be significantly threatened by new technological, political, and spiritual powers of a new age of totalitarianism. Higham has asserted that for some liberals, "one of the principal casualties of the postwar world was the faith in progress itself."

Events during and after World War II presented liberals in America not only with philosophical challenges to their progressive idealism but also with more concrete political problems and dilemmas. The sudden death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 created a vacuum of leadership not just for the nation but particularly for liberals, who had come to rely on the president to sort out the uncertain legacy of New Deal initiatives that had stalled before and during the war. The new president, Harry S. Truman, was not received favorably by liberals within the Democratic party, especially in the first few years of his administration. Without strong leadership, liberals fell to quarreling over emerging issues of the day, such as labor legislation, civil rights, and aid to Europe. Yet, by 1948, many liberals chose to support Truman's electoral bid for the White House against the challenges of Republican Thomas Dewey and Henry Wallace, running as the nominee of the insurgent Progressive party.

America's political Left was further fragmented by the rising tide of anticommunism. Cooperation on social issues among progressive liberals, trade unions, socialists, and Communists in America, which had begun in the 1930s and had been justified after 1941 as part of a united Popular Front against Nazi Germany, collapsed as tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union mounted after the war. By the end of the 1940s, liberals were forced to distinguish between genuine progressive reform impulses and what was often perceived as Communist infiltration into the progressive political movement. In 1947, a group of liberal intellectuals and politicians founded the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) in an attempt to stake out a clear position for the "non-Communist Left" in American politics.

In his book on the history of the ADA, Steven Gillon summarized the plight of liberals in postwar America: "ADA liberals, chastened by the harsh reality of the Great Depression and fascism, disenchanted with Marxist polemics, and skeptical of ideal solutions, placed a premium on bargaining and compromise. Yet, they also fancied themselves as reformers with a responsibility to promote social and economic justice." In the years after the war, liberals tried, often unsuccessfully, to "strike a balance between their commitment to abstract ideals of social justice and their sense of the politically possible." What Gillon described as the conflict between "politics and vision" would haunt liberals like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for more than a generation.

In response to the "contradictions" of existence inherent in a situation, writes Burke, each of us "symbolically erects" a frame of acceptance or understanding by "overt or covert acts of 'transcendence'" that provide "solutions" to the puzzles of existence. Early in his academic and political career, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., began to construct a distinctive frame of acceptance in order to transcend the problems facing traditional liberalism in the frightening postwar world.

Sources of Schlesinger's Frame of Acceptance

During his first few years on the Harvard University faculty, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., established himself not only as a scholar of American history but also as an advocate and defender of liberal political causes. He was a founding member of the Americans for Democratic Action and worked through that organization in the 1948 presidential campaign in support of Harry Truman. In 1949, he published The Vital Center, a book that was hailed as "the manifesto of postwar liberalism."

The Vital Center contained Schlesinger's diagnosis of the troubled political times in America and around the world. In the opening pages, Schlesinger wrote, "Western man in the middle of the twentieth century is tense, uncertain, adrift. We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety. The grounds of our civilization, of our certitude, are breaking up under our feet, and familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach for them, like shadows in the falling dusk."

For Schlesinger, the war and its aftermath forever "broke the bubble of false optimism" that had sustained progressive beliefs in the inevitability of liberal reform. "The Soviet experience, on top of the rise of fascism," continued the young historian, "reminded my generation rather forcibly that man was, indeed, imperfect, and that the corruptions of power could unleash great evil in the world."

The dangers of naive optimism in an age of mass industrialization called for a new foundation for liberalism that could serve as a "fighting faith" for believers in democracy and reform. As he began to put together a liberal philosophy in response to the uncertainties of the postwar world, Schlesinger was influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr's views on human nature, by the views of Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., on ideology and history, and by Franklin Roosevelt's views on the prospect for public action.

Initially, Schlesinger was guided by the critique of modern liberal culture found in the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr, who had been influenced by both socialism and Christian existentialism, formulated a view of human nature based on "a secular interpretation of original sin."

Searching for the essential characteristics of democratic societies, Niebuhr identified a tension between man's "essential freedom" — "the capacity for indeterminate transcendence over the processes and limitations of nature" — and the necessity for order in human communities. In response to the tension between freedom and order, man commits "original sin" by transforming the "will to live" into the "will to power" and by furthering self-interest at the expense of communal interests. Progressive optimists — the "children of light" — err in the sentimental belief that self-interest through felicitous reason alone can be made congruent with collective interests. Fascists — the "children of darkness" — err in the cynical belief that an individual interest can be imposed through terror and technological control on the entire community.

Niebuhr believed that the morality of the "children of light" and the appreciation of power of the "children of darkness" must be combined into a collective wisdom expressing itself through constant and vigorous exercise of democracy. "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible," Niebuhr concluded in 1944, "but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who became associated with Niebuhr through their activity in the ADA, found in the theologian's work a healthy "skepticism about man" which, "far from leading to a rejection of democracy, established democracy on its firmest possible intellectual basis." Niebuhr's views on human nature, Schlesinger wrote in retrospect, accomplished "in a single generation a revolution in the bases of American liberal political thought," an alternative explanation for "[a] culture which had staked too much on illusion" and had "found itself baffled and stricken in an age dominated by total government and total war."

For Schlesinger, the Niebuhrian concept of original sin justified a renewed "fighting faith" in reform in the face of man's intrinsic evil. Niebuhr's contention that "there is a Hitler, a Stalin in every breast" held in check only through the power of majoritarian democracy provided both an explanation for the rise of totalitarianism in some parts of the world and justification for liberal government intervention into the economy and society to protect individual groups from themselves and from each other.

Such a view of human nature magnified the importance of struggle and competition of interests in American society. In accepting Niebuhr's secular view of original sin based on power, Schlesinger accepted conflict as the essence of human experience. He wrote: "The choice we face is not between progress with conflict and progress without conflict. The choice is between conflict and stagnation. You cannot expel conflict from society any more than you can from the human mind. When you attempt it, the psychic costs in schizophrenia or torpor are the same."

Schlesinger would resolve the contradictions between progressive and cynical views of human nature by adopting an attitude that "presumes a perpetual tension in our society, a doubtful equilibrium, constantly breeding strife and struggle" among individual groups refereed by a benign but activist liberal state. The belief that conflict was inherent in human society was later reflected in the popular conception of "interest-group liberalism."

Arthur Schlesinger's acceptance of a human nature based on conflict and struggle was tempered somewhat by his father's revulsion against radical extremism and devotion to empirical experience over ideology. Living through the ideological optimism and subsequent disillusionment of the progressive era, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., counseled against adhering to absolutist creeds, which too often led to extremist violence (as in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti).

The elder Schlesinger was convinced that democratic politics could be conducted only in the "middle zone" between radicalism and conservatism. In this middle zone of political action, pragmatic, trial-and-error experimentation based on sound empiricism should take precedence over muddleheaded do-goodism. The historian sincerely believed that an empirical investigation of the facts could lead a trained mind to find appropriate means to accomplish desired ends. Schlesinger, Sr., concluded that America, uniquely blessed by geography and lack of a feudal tradition, had the capability to accomplish progressive reforms that would lead to equal opportunity free from Old World ideological baggage.

The younger Schlesinger shared his father's preference for flexible empiricism over ideology in the understanding of American history and politics. Wreszin writes that "what may set Schlesinger apart from a common stereotype is that, as a precocious undergraduate [at] ... Harvard, he was not terribly interested in politics and 'had no patience with the turgid debates of the campus Marxists, finding their dogmatism downright silly.'" Schlesinger explained in 1949 that his political generation grew up as Soviet communism was being exposed not as the fulfillment of a utopian ideal but as a harsh brutal regime of terror. Never having had the dream of collectivism to lose, Schlesinger, Jr., had neither the aspirations nor the disappointments of the ideologue. He wrote: "We were simply the children of a new atmosphere — history had spared us any emotional involvement in the Soviet mirage" of Marxist ideology. The younger Schlesinger would retain an unbending opposition to communism throughout his career.


Excerpted from Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and the Ideological History of American Liberalism by Stephen P. Depoe. Copyright © 1994 University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents


1. Origins of Schlesinger's Frame of Acceptance,
2. The Age of Jackson and The Age of Roosevelt: A Foundation for Ideological History,
3. From the New Deal to Camelot: Ideological History in Action,
4. The Tides of National Politics and the Rhetoric of Dawnism,
5. In the Halls of Power, 1961–1965,
6. Vietnam and Violence, 1965–1972,
7. Liberalism in Retreat, 1972–1993,
8. Conclusion,

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